Hosteria il Carroccio, Siena
She presides over her small, intimate dining room, carefully surveying all she sees. She sits herself between the even smaller kitchen and her guests. Quietly unobtrusive, her name is Leila, and she is a six-year old tan and white Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
(For those of you who might wonder, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a different breed from the King Charles Spaniel. The former has only been recognized as a breed since 1945; the latter has had ties with various aristocrats for centuries. Mary Queen of Scots adored the breed, and lived with them most of her life; apparently one of them stood faithfully by her side as she went to the scaffold.)(Check out http://www.cavaliers.co.uk/, or The American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book of 1970.)
Leila shares her life, and her restaurant, with Renata Toppi, who has run this little eatery since 1990. If you find yourself in Siena in or near Piazza del Campo, and you’re hungry around lunch or dinner time, you’re a stone’s throw away from having a terrific meal. Forget the curmudgeonly Waverly Root’s (1903-1992) assertion that “It is curious that Siena has so little to offer of its own apart from general Tuscan dishes” (The Food of Italy, 1971). He was wrong.
The creative menu proposes dishes with combinations you won’t find anywhere else. Written on it is “Our dishes may contain spices.” And indeed they do. Herbs and spices which appear infrequently in typical Italian cuisine turn up here, like tarragon (in a risotto with artichokes, zucchini, and sundried tomatoes). The cipollata del contadino (the farmer’s onion soup) comes with grated orange zest. Here they mix up the typical Tuscan crostini con fegatini (chicken liver spread on toasted bread) and turn it into a salad with vin santo (literally, “holy wine” – a sweet, usually-but-not-always dessert wine). The menu lists “crostini neri di milza,” a Sienese specialty, and adds a rhyme: “dalla bontà ci si rizza.” (Its goodness makes you come to attention.)
Crostini neri di milza much resembles Tuscany’s famous chicken liver spread; in Siena, they make it with veal spleen (this might sound disgusting, but it really, truly isn’t). The recipe uses the same ingredients as the chicken liver spread (butter, olive oil, dry white wine, anchovies, capers, broth) but substitutes spleen for liver. (Unless you are lucky enough to date, be married to, or be a butcher yourself, finding this organ meat in the United States is extremely tricky. If you have a good butcher connection, there’s a recipe at http://www.ilgreppo.it/; if you don’t, all the more reason to sample Renata’s.)
A horde of us descended on the place a couple of Saturdays ago, and had the most delicious time. Though the menu changes frequently, almost always on it is the decadently delectable palline di pecorino con lardo e salsa di pere, translating to “ewe’s milk cheese balls with lard and pear sauce.” These succulent cheese concoctions, wrapped in lardo, are run under the broiler. Pecorino pairs beautifully with pears, and pairs even better when it’s melted. Though we shared most dishes, two of us who ordered this dish were somewhat reluctant to do so.
(A word about lardo. Do not think Crisco. Think, instead, of an aged pork product cured in caves, adorned with herbs – usually rosemary; think of it the way you would think of raw oysters on the half shell, or a tin of caviar just in from Russia, or any other Special Occasion Food. Remember that Michelangelo used to eat it when he quarried his marble up above Carrara, that his wonderful David, any of his Pietà, and maybe even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were fuelled by lard.)(In the United States, it’s euphemistically called “white prosciutto.” Call it what it is: lard.)
The primi (first courses) include typical Tuscan dishes, like ribollita, and a Sienese pasta mainstay, pici (a thick, long noodle found in Siena and south of it). In this case, though, it’s made more lively than the usual ways (garlic, bread crumbs, typically) and sauced with mushrooms, ham, ricotta, and onion. Those who ordered it, while offering to share, were notably silent during this course, as they were too busy eating.
A fragrant green olive and zucchini sauce flavors the striscioline di petto d’anatra (slightly rare duck breast strips). (Le mangiavano le dive/Divas ate them, advises the menu). You don’t often find duck on Tuscan menus, unless you’re in the Mugello, an area north of Florence, whose signature ravioli stuffed with potatoes is sometimes sauced with a minced duck ragù.)
Desserts, like the primi, are typical Tuscan (cantuccini con vin santo/almond biscotti served with a glass of holy wine) and typical Sienese (ricciarelli con vin santo – almond cookies served with holy wine) as well as a torta mascarpone e nutella (mascarpone cheese and Nutella chocolate cake). Here Mr. Root is right: you’ll find this all other Italy and lots of happy Italians eating it.
The folks at il Carroccio are generous with their grappa; they offer it gratis, along with vin santo, to worthy diners, which means just about everybody. Chestnuts macerated in one of the flasks, and hard-to-tell-but-definitely-had-cinnamon-sticks in it in the other. Both packed tasty punches said those who tried them.
All this comes at most reasonable prices (the pastas clock in at around $10 per plate).
Dogs love chicken liver spread, and spleen spread. Here’s hoping that every now and then Leila, hardworking and beautiful as she is, occasionally has a crostino or two thrown her way.
Hosteria il Carroccio, Via del Casato di Sotto 32, 0577/41165. Closed Wednesdays.
Gone to the Happy Hunting Ground: Bobo (c. 1991-February 25, 2010). Splendid hound.
Happy Birthday, John Cowsill (b. 1956). Go to http://www.youtube.com/ and watch him and his family sing “Monday, Monday.”
Rose Gray of River Cafe fame has died. Her cookbooks, written with Ruth Rogers, are indispensable in our kitchen, especially River Cafe Cook Book Green (London, 2000). See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/garden/02gray.html?hpw. How sad.